Mostly Mozart, but a little Wagner, too
Matthew Gurewitsch's New York Times article (August 2nd) on Yannick Nézet-Séguin reminded me that I had wanted to see/hear this much-talked-about young Québecois conductor at work. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend a rehearsal for his concert with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra at Avery Fisher two days later - and a rehearsal is the only place where one can really tell whether a conductor knows what s/he wants and knows how to get it - but I did catch most of the concert itself. Stravinsky's Pulcinella (the complete ballet) had plenty of energy and lyricism, as it requires, but it lacked the sort of muscular incisiveness that real Stravinskians - from Monteux, Ansermet, and Stravinsky himself down to our own day - have brought to this composer's music. Phrases were often too nicely rounded, too damped down at the end, even in the playful sections, to have packed the punch they ought to have had. Still, the orchestra played well, although the concertmistress betrayed much nervousness in her solo passages. In Mozart's dramatic Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466, there was more variety and nuance in the orchestra than in the playing of soloist Nicholas Angelich, who seemed to substitute bluntness, even harshness, for real drama.
I didn't stay for Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, which ended the concert. In the first place, I still had last season's brilliant performance of the work, by the Met Orchestra and James Levine, ringing in my ears, and I didn't want to have it dislodged; in the second, I'd had enough of Mr. Nézet-Séguin's jumping around the podium like a jack-in-the-box. Years ago, a celebrated conductor known for his gestural sobriety - in addition to his musical virtues - said to me about a famous colleague known for his podium antics: "Note that after awhile the orchestra stops watching him. The show is too big." I look forward to hearing what Nézet-Séguin will bring to Carmen when he makes his Met debut later this season, and when I'll be able to keep my eyes fixed on the stage action. (Sure, I could have closed my eyes during the concert, but now that I'm in my sixties I find that if I close my eyes I tend to fall asleep.)
All in all, I was much more impressed, a few days later, by the conducting of someone who isn't primarily a conductor than by that of N-S. On Sunday, in another Mostly Mozart concert - this one at Alice Tully Hall - French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard conducted the European Chamber Orchestra in performances of Haydn's "Clock" Symphony, Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, and Mozart's Piano Concerto in F Major, K. 459 (which he conducted from the keyboard). The Haydn was at times lacking in bar-to-bar intensity and playfulness, but it was well worked-out, the tempi felt natural, and there was none of the heavy-handedness that I heard in a Carnegie Hall performance of the same symphony some months ago by Bernard Haitink with the Chicago Symphony. I was not familiar with this relatively early Ligeti work, but Aimard and the thirteen musicians seemed to convey it with mastery and conviction; Aimard's remarks (with brief musical illustrations) immediately before the performance were thoughtful, useful, and concise. Best of all, the Mozart concerto was played and conducted with vitality and subtlety - neither quality at the expense of the other. I wondered why Aimard bothers collaborating with the unmusical Nikolaus Harnoncourt, since he gets much better results on his own. If you rate conductors by their ability to help groups of fellow-musicians achieve excellent musical results, Aimard appears to be a damned good one.
Now, regarding Tony Tommasini's article, "Can You Love the Creation, Not the Creator?", in this past Sunday's Times: I agree that Wagner wrote some of the most significant music in the history of the art, and that trying to ignore that music is ridiculous. I'm no Wagnerite - I find sitting through an entire Wagner opera extremely trying - but I love a lot of the music in almost every one of his operas. My problem with Wagner (and of course it is my problem, not his) springs from my feeling that he needed a good editor - someone who would have told him, "Dick, putting that idea across two or three times is more than sufficient; if you do it thirty-one times, you're telling listeners that they're idiots who can't be trusted to remember what you said five minutes ago. Here, have a look at this Mozart string quartet....." On the other hand, whether or not one is a Wagnerite, Wagner's music exists; those who try to prevent it from being performed remind me of the US State Department during the decades when it tried to pretend that Communist China - the most populous nation on earth - did not exist, and that if they ignored it long enough it would go away.
As to the vexata quaestio of Wagner's anti-Semitism: the issue isn't that the Nazis liked his music (who cares what they liked?) but that he espoused - over and over again, in print and at numbing length - a lot of ideas that the Nazis later adopted; Hitler even claimed Wagner as his sole philosophical forebear. Wagner's anti-Semitism wasn't limited to an occasional racial slur of the sort that many people make from time to time about one group or another ("Those damned [fill in the blank]!"), but rather an ongoing, detailed attack on what he declared to be the pernicious influence of Jews on European civilization. The psychological origins of Wagner's racism have been the object of many studies and are indeed fascinating, but the hard fact is that Wagner would probably have approved of much of what Hitler did, and that many of his descendants were among the Nazis' most fervent supporters. He didn't much like the French, Italians, or most other non-Germans, either, and overall he was a self-serving, dishonest egomaniac; yet the Jews were a particular object of his venom. But is there not poetic justice in the fact that more than a century and a quarter after the composer's death and more than six decades after the fall of the Third Reich, performances of Wagner's music, especially in America, often depend to a considerable extent on the participation of Jewish musicians and the support of Jewish patrons of the arts? I am Jewish, yet I take the deepest pleasure in reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, although I know that he, like Wagner, was an anti-Semitic nationalist of the worst sort; and it seems to me that our willingness to listen to Wagner's music with open ears is our trump card against the hateful, small-minded bigotry of Wagner the man.